Houston City Council member and Mayor Pro-Tem Ellen Cohen looked across the bustling Discovery Green from the vantage point of the newly renovated George R. Brown Convention Center and marveled at the changes that have taken place in the eastern part of downtown Houston.
"I've been in Houston since 1977 and as I stand here I am so amazed at the whole look and, in particular, when I look across the street and think of those absolutely beautiful parking lots that we had for all those years and a street that went down here and a bunch of buses parked down there. Look what we've got now," she proclaimed. "It's fantastic."
At a recent kickoff party to celebrate the changes in the area in advance of Super Bowl LI, city officials and executives from the Houston Super Bowl Host Committee and Houston First fell all over themselves in praise of one another for making it happen. But perhaps they could be excused for the excessive enthusiasm as the Convention Center/Discovery Green area promises to be the focus of attention for much of the hoopla surrounding the big event, with a made-for-TV backdrop.
When Houston hosted the Super Bowl in 2004, the sparkling new METRORail system debuted in downtown Houston and the social center occurred along Main Street in the north area of downtown. However, much of the downtown club scene withered afterwards in the years afterwards, although there has been a recent revival of restaurants and clubs.
Now, 13 years later, Super Bowl activity will shift to the corridor around Discovery Green, with a new $370 million Marriott Marquis hotel and $175 million in improvements aimed at establishing a pedestrian urban crossroads in this sprawling, car-centric city. Officials are hopeful that this time around, the changes will stick.
The transformation includes a 97,000-square-foot pedestrian plaza in front of the convention center, dubbed "Avenida Houston," with five new restaurants, and a swirling water sculpture by Joe O'Connell, called Wings of Water, that will likely be a prime place for Super Bowl selfies. "I am just in awe of Wings of Water...It represents Houston's soul," said Mayor Sylvester Turner. "It is a kinetic, which demonstrates that it is movement and the city continues to move. And the city continues to transform itself."
The convention center, which will be the site of the NFL Experience from January 28 through February 5, has been opened up, with an atrium-like lobby with floor-to-ceiling glass windows looking out onto Discovery Green and a number of art installations, including Soaring in the Clouds, a 67-foot-high mobile of shiny metal clouds and cutout birds. A 10-story office building, Partnership Tower, and a new 1,900-car garage round out the changes in the area.
More than 1 million visitors are expected at Discovery Green for Super Bowl LIVE, a 10-day free festival with performances by ZZ Top, Solange Knowles, and a host of Texas singers and musicians, a Future Flight thrill ride, food trucks, and other exhibits about Houston.
After the Super Bowl is over, officials are depending upon increased convention business to keep the area hopping and are hoping that Houstonians will make the restaurants a destination spot.
"The things that are taking place right now are things that will live long past the Super Bowl," Turner said. "But having said that, when that 1 million-plus folk come to the city of Houston (for the Super Bowl), they are in for one happy time in this city."